Does Leaving the EU fix Immigration?

In my previous blog I sketched out four main arguments about the impact of immigration:

  1. The impact on public services and quality of life.
  2. The impact on employment and wages.
  3. The fact that as a nation it should be up to us and nobody else who may come to the UK to live and work.
  4. The impact on local and national culture of people who may not share it or might even be in many ways opposed to it.

Here I’ll try to look at these a bit more closely and to consider whether they support a vote to leave the EU. As with the Referendum debate generally, there is a distinction between what leaving could do and what it will do. The one thing leaving definitely will do is to address the third of the arguments. This is important, but I believe not the whole of the matter. The particular alternative ideas for what the UK would do on leaving the EU make little or no headway on dealing with the other three arguments while also opening up the prospect of either making them worse (if for economic reasons we choose to increase immigration) or creating other problems (like considering whether to remove the rights of expats to return home after a certain period or repatriating past migrants). Even though remaining in will also have its uncertainties, they do not seem to have adverse consequences as significant as these and many of the practical issues arising out of the first two arguments could be dealt with without leaving the EU.

Economic impacts

The first two factors in the list  focus on two elements of the economic impact on ordinary people of immigration. They ignore to an extent, whether there are broader economic benefits such as increased GDP or increased levels of tax revenue for the Exchequer and rightly because both of these are more diffuse and opaque in their immediate impact on people unless very obvious – neither of these would be strong factors in opposing the decision of someone like Roman Abramovich to come to West London, the money he brought to Chelsea FC and the massively increased size of that business are very unlikely to have put a strain on public services, employment opportunities or wages, but few will have the time or inclination to work out whether Roman the carpenter from Lithuania and his family have been positive or negative in their overall contribution when they can see that they are taking up a handful of places in the local GP’s list, a few places in the local schools and he’s winning work against local tradesmen.

So, the question here should be, would leaving the EU address this concern? The proposal which seems to be generally being made by Leave campaigners is that were we to leave the EU, we could prevent Roman the carpenter from coming to the UK if he could not demonstrate in advance that he offered skills we had a shortage of and that he would not be a burden on the taxpayer. So, he might still be able to come, but not as of right, rather in the same way as prospective migrants from outside the EU.

That sounds reasonable enough, but I wonder whether it involves any real change. The reality is that a high proportion of migrants to the UK from elsewhere in the EU work and that even organisations sceptical about the impact of immigration like Migration Watch do not claim that there’s a net adverse effect on the UK economy (ie looking at the cost of providing services, additional revenues etc) from EU immigration. Roman and his family would probably still pass any reasonable test so the impact of a test would be to prevent those who could not or would not contribute positively or at least neutrally from coming. However, it is not clear why, if this is a strong motivation for leaving the EU, these particular concerns could not be dealt with by lesser measures (such as, for example, removing the right to claim state support from EU migrants until they had worked for a number of years – as per the negotiations Cameron had in February).

Cultural Change

I think this is a broader issue than mere membership of the EU. The arguments here apply at least as much to migration from outside the EU as from within it – perhaps even more so as some non-EU cultures are more dissimilar to British culture than many EU ones and on a more local level, the same unease is felt about migration even within the UK. It is a very common experience in rural villages for people who have moved there even from other parts of the same county to be considered “incomers” for many years (although ironically the foreign family moving to the village and opening a takeaway and sponsoring the village show might end up being welcomed more than the folks from a nearby city buying a weekend cottage). Whether we leave the EU or not, this sort of change will always happen for many reasons and few are arguing for controls on the ability of British people to relocate around the country. How significant an issue it is will tend to be a matter of degree and there may be a tipping point where beyond a certain proportion of any local population there is a significant change in local culture.

But this is something which has always happened – an example close to home is the change of many neighbourhoods in NW Leeds from being largely made up of long term families to having majorities of students and now returning to families. That didn’t happen because the local population got the universities shut down or quotas put on how many students could live on any one street but because of regulation to ensure decent standards of housing for students and economic factors making other areas become more suitable. Those are also areas where the pressure on schools and other services currently being felt are nothing at all to do with immigration.

It might also be that the imbalances in our existing society exacerbate the fear of excessive cultural change from new people. Not that many people are sitting around their kitchen table elsewhere in the EU dreaming of a new life in Accrington. Many people all around Britain and the world are doing precisely that about moving to London. That said, it is not unusual for people moving to a new area or country wanting to be near people from the old country if they can, as we can see with the large enclaves of British retirees on the Spanish coast. While leaving the EU and deciding to cut or end immigration would stop there being cultural change of this sort, if we decided to continue allowing in immigrants it would not be very realistic to then try to limit where they could go once here.


It should not be anybody else’s business who and how many can come to the UK is a strong argument. That us and us alone should be in control of our own destiny is a big theme for many of those campaigning for the UK to leave the EU. In principle it is sufficient in itself, not just in the context of immigration, to support a vote to leave regardless of any of the  practical consequences of leaving. Personally I think the argument from sovereignty is somewhat abstract. From a legal perspective, even within the EU, Parliament remains sovereign – even the most apprently binding EU law can be disregarded by Parliament and the organs of the State should we choose it. That doesn’t mean that taking such decisions is not without consequence but few decisions can be both important and without consequence.

While occasionally politicians might wring their hands and say “we’d love to but the EU prevents us” this is an excuse because it involves an implicit choice not to take the adverse consequences of going in the face of EU law. An example can be seen in the recent debate over saving steel production at Redcar and Port Talbot. Here it was quite true that the EU State Aid rules seriously constrained the government’s ability to intervene by providing subsidies to cover the losses being made by the steel companies. However, that didn’t mean that we could not, had we chosen, decide to take action in breach of those rules to secure the immediate future of the steel industry and live with the penalties which might follow some years later (this seems to be the approach the Italian government took in renationalising Ilva which is now subject to investigation by the Commission). It would also mean that we could, if we wanted to, after some later finding against the government by the Commission, simply refuse to implement that finding. That would of course involve a real fight and exposing the possibility that the government simply does not believe in 1970s style intervention and subsidy for failing industries and that the EU provides cover for what we would be doing anyway.

But I digress – the point here is that in practice, if we really wanted to take control over immigration from the EU, we could do so without leaving the EU. It would cause an almighty row but no EU country would in fact be able to force the UK to take any of their citizens if we simply turned all or some of them away at passport control. We have chosen not to.

The real problem? There are just too many

The answer to none of the four arguments about immigration is unavoidably that we must vote to leave the EU, even if doing so would allow for them all to be addressed in a different way to what is currently done or possible to do.

I suspect that the real issue for many of those concerned about immigration might not be as nuanced as those four arguments but simply that on some level they feel there are just too many immigrants. There is some evidence to show that people hugely overestimate the immigrant population but even if they didn’t, it is the perception which will count and also the belief that Brexit will lead to a perceptible fall in the immigrant population.

However, this is where we have to move on from the arguments of principle like the desire to retain sovereignty, away from what could be done to what would be done. And it is here that I think the case for Leave becomes much less plausible on the basis of controlling immigration.

The concerns about impacts on services, employment/wages, culture, all come from people’s perceptions of what has already happened and which they can see only getting “worse”. This is why there was a pledge by Cameron to get net migration down to the tens of thousands a year to at least stop the adverse perception of migration getting worse. Of course, in practice this is an area where the government has singularly failed to come anywhere near that aspiration, which itself is one of the reasons why immigration is such a big issue in the referendum campaign. It is too easy to conclude that a PM who is campaigning to Remain has failed to live up to his promise on immigration because of the EU.

However, I think it then becomes incumbent on the Leave campaign to set out how it would use the additional powers that leaving the EU is claimed to give them in order to do a better job of getting net migration down. And, as I discussed before, even that might well not be sufficient because just keeping the status quo when it is the status quo which is being rejected is unlikely to satisfy many of those who worry about the impact of the immigration which has already happened. I don’t think it is fanciful, whatever is said now by the Leave campaign, to think that even though it has not yet manifested itself, there would be a substantial proportion of people who would see zero net migration as inadequate and want to see that turn into a large negative number. If there is a majority of the public happy to rip up the EU Treaty I doubt that many of them would have any scruples about doing the same to the much less well-known Vienna Convention which would otherwise guarantee the rights of existing immigrants, if doing so were the only way in which to remedy the issues perceived about the migration which has already happened.

Anyway, perhaps that is over-pessimistic. More realistically, it is worth looking a little bit at the make up of immigration over time, particularly in the context of the different approaches suggested by different Leave campaigners. The first thing to note is that any of those who recommend moving to become members of EFTA or the EEA and thereby largely remedying the sovereignty issue in terms of the impact of EU law generally on the UK, are not proposing anything in relation to EU migration. This is because EFTA and EEA states are also required to allow free movement to EU nationals. So, any solution to immigration issues on Brexit would have to involve not being part of EFTA or the EEA either.

Another set of arguments made by Leave has been that Brexit would be an opportunity to treat immigrants from outside the EU equally with those from the EU whereas at present, immigration from outside the EU is too heavily restricted. This leads to difficulties in getting highly skilled non-EU people into the country (or curry chefs from Bangladesh, putting the Great British Curry house at risk) when even the least productive EU citizen can simply waltz in.

Leaving aside my cynicism about whether many people who turn their noses up at EU migrants would be completely sanguine about increased numbers of non-EU migrants, the graph above shows how inconsistent this argument about encouraging relations with countries outside the EU is. Assuming that Brexit does not lead to any significant immediate or long-term harm to the economy, even if we were to reduce net EU migration to zero, total net migration would still be at around 140,000 people a year. Relaxing the conditions on non-EU migrants would increase that. Allowing in EU migrants who met the same requirements as non-EU migrants would increase it further. At best net migration would be brought down from a city the size of Newcastle to one the size of Oxford. Not a particularly impressive result on what is meant to be the number one reason to leave the EU.

Taking the more optimistic predictions about Britain’s economic future, it seems likely that if anything there will be demand for more immigration, both skilled and unskilled. So, while like Australia or (to an extent) Switzerland we’d have control over immigration that would mean that three of the four factors I’ve discussed would not be addressed at all by Brexit because, like Australia and Switzerland, it could result in a much higher immigrant population than we currently have.

Of course, things could be improved on this front if the predictions of the Remain campaign about Brexit causing a recession came true. The graph shows that net migration of British people out of the UK was at its highest in the aftermath of the last recession and that both non-EU and EU migration to the UK at its lowest around the same time. However, it would seem rather a Pyrrhic victory over immigration to deal with it by crashing the economy to encourage British people to leave and for there to be noting for foreigners to come for!

The only other ways to make a big post-Brexit change to the total net migration level are potentially highly unappealing. First, by “encouraging” past migrants to leave – for me the only way this can be done other than in a rather BNP-ish way (they never wrote back when I asked them at their peak of success how much they’d pay) is for there to be explosive growth in opportunities elsewhere in the world, particularly in their countries of origin. I’m not sure in that scenario whether it would seem such a wise move to leave the EU if it were to be followed by big economic booms in the EU (and if the EU were booming, whether we could actually bear for people to leave the UK and deprive it of the skills and manpower to meet demand from the EU!).

The other would be to take the arguments about impacts of increases to the total population size on public services etc seriously and to subject returning British expats to the same sorts of points test as any other people seeking to enter the UK. Or perhaps to use the new airport in St Helena to export underproductive Brits to increase emigration. After all, if all 2 million Brits elsewhere in the EU were to come back in the space of a couple of years we’d need to build a couple of Birminghams for them to live in. Of course it would be crazy to stop British people coming home or to start shipping British people out against their will as a consequence of a fixation on net migration.

Even though immigration seems to be the big question, I don’t think Brexit is the answer to it.


One thought on “Does Leaving the EU fix Immigration?

  1. Pingback: Bored of Brexit | botzarelli

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